Book of the Week: Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century

Katharine Reeve is gripped by a chapter-and-verse account of the industry at the heart of intellectual culture

September 9, 2010

Few industries have had their death foretold more frequently than the publishing industry" and yet survived. That is, John Thompson adds, "at least until now".

This impressively comprehensive and revealing analysis of the structures and processes of modern publishing is timely as the industry faces its digital future. Thompson, a sociologist, researched academic publishing in Books in the Digital Age: The Transformation of Academic and Higher Education Publishing in Britain and the United States (2005). He now turns his attention to English-language trade publishing in the US and the UK - that is, titles of the sort we see prominently displayed in chain bookstores and featured on Richard & Judy or Oprah, ranging from ghostwritten celebrity autobiographies to serious history, and from genre fiction to literary novels.

His project is to map the field of trade publishing - "about which we know very little" - at the point at which it is about to undergo a major transformation. Publishing is at the centre of literary and intellectual culture, so why is this the first book to really tackle it in a sustained and perceptive manner?

To most of us the world of publishing is mysterious. We have no idea how decisions are made about acquisitions and advances; how the finances really work; and who holds the power. Thompson studied this world, he says, as an anthropologist would, except this tribe lives and works mainly along the Thames and Hudson rivers, not on a South Pacific island. And thanks to Thompson and his 280 anonymous industry interviewees, we can peek behind closed doors to see how publishing works, identify the value it adds, debunk myths (do editors edit?), pore over the fascinating statistics he has collated, and tease apart ideas of "hype" and "buzz". He highlights the interdependency and complexity of the industry, along with pressures from rising agents' advances in the US and high retailer discounts in Britain.

As you start reading the introduction, you know you are in for a treat. You are transported to the Manhattan office of a literary scout in a 19th-century midtown block, where an interviewee tells the tale of a seemingly bizarre publishing deal in which an academic dying of cancer received an advance of $6.75 million (£4.3 million) for a book called The Last Lecture. The point of Merchants of Culture is to explain the context of such a deal.

Thompson identifies three key changes affecting publishing and explores their effect on the way the industry operates. First, there is the polarisation of sales channels that came with new bookshop chains in the 1980s, followed by supermarkets' rising market share of book sales and the arrival of Amazon. Second, the meteoric rise of the "super-agents" in the 1990s is shown here to be a mixed blessing, the main benefit being saving editors' time by sifting submissions. Thompson recounts the memorable description of agents offered at one writers' convention as "the occasional fin slicing through the water". Where old-school literary agents worked with publishers and authors, the new breed of agents work solely for the author for a 10 or 15 per cent cut, managing careers, running bidding wars, demanding high advances and poaching clients. Thompson's chapter on the subject is unique in being so revealing about the life of these middlemen and women who have pushed their way to the centre.

The third key change has been the consolidation of publishing companies. This model requires constant year-on-year growth and a healthy bottom line. Thompson explores the problems of "the contradiction that lies at the heart of the corporate publishing house - namely the expectation of substantial growth in a market that is largely flat". The result is stressed editors and divisional heads, and panic buying. Publishers (with an exception made for the "quality" imprint with "symbolic value") become trapped in a cycle of paying over the odds for over-hyped instant books, in the hope that some will become budget-rescuing bestsellers.

Thompson quotes insiders who talk of "unrelenting pressure" and "sheer absolute terror" over financial results. He also warns against the corporate temptation to rationalise the acquisitions process, potentially "inhibiting the very creativity upon which the success of your organization depends". Discussions of the editorial process are refreshingly honest about the inexact science of trade commissioning, showing that profit-and-loss sheets prepared for meetings are often "total fabrications". A popular quick fix to simulate growth is the acquisition of another company, and, as he says, gains "can often be drawn out over years".

For Thompson, the trade's "short-termist mentality leads to plenty of bad publishing". But he sees a move to challenge this status quo by some industry insiders. On the plus side, with 120,000 new titles published in Britain each year, the idea of widespread dumbing-down is worth challenging, Thompson argues. He reminds us that corporate publishers are not all the same, describing what he calls the "federal model" in which imprints are given autonomy within financial boundaries. The real problem, he notes, is a lack of diversity in the marketplace, where stock is chosen nationally by a few head-office buyers, meaning only small numbers of books get noticed, bought and read, and leading to a "winner takes more" market.

There is much here of interest to authors, whom Thompson sees as too naive about the very industry on which their careers depend. We read of the terrible and not atypical experiences of an academic who sold her first crime novel for a lot of money, but by the fifth had discovered that her marketing budget was nil and her agent had not been pulling her weight. As previous sales figures are now called up in acquisitions meetings, this precipitated a downward spiral in her publishing career. By contrast, new authors with no sales history to taint them are feted by publishers who take them on with inflated sales expectations that support, at least in theory, the unsustainable advances brokered by agents. Thompson warns that this is "a system geared towards maximizing returns ... not designed to cultivate literary careers over a lifetime". Many authors find themselves at the door of smaller publishers (who tend to take the long view) or university presses, who are willing to take good books that the big houses won't look at because, as one university press director put it, "the romance is over, the buzz is off". There is an interesting discussion of the forays of university presses into the margins of trade publishing where they rarely pay large advances but can have breakout successes. Here the emphasis is on calculated risk-taking and limiting exposure.

So what does the future hold for publishing? One of the major challenges for the industry is the cultural revolution brought about by digital technology, even though no one is yet entirely certain whether e-books will work. Thompson acknowledges the risk of "content becoming cannon fodder for large and powerful technology companies". He also quotes a digital expert's view that "for narrative, immersive reading, digital readers are a complete waste of everyone's time ... on the trade side".

The real danger to the dominance of publishers is outside technology agencies with their control of the route to online markets (Amazon) and even online backlist publishing (Google). Amazon can disable the "buy" button on a title if the publisher does not agree to its terms, while Google has embarked on a major land-grab of backlist copyrights, unilaterally scanning thousands of backlist titles without consulting either publishers or their authors.


John B. Thompson is professor of sociology at the University of Cambridge and Fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge. After his undergraduate degree at Keele University in 1975, he went on to gain his doctorate at Cambridge in 1979. He was a research Fellow at Jesus College from 1979 to 1984, and was appointed lecturer in sociology at Cambridge in 1985, reader in sociology in 1994 and professor of sociology in 2001. He has been a visiting professor at universities in the US, Canada, Brazil, China and South Africa.

His main areas of research are contemporary social and political theory, sociology of the media and modern culture, the social organisation of the media industries, the social and political impact of communication technologies, and the changing forms of political communication.

Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century

By John B. Thompson

Polity, 440pp, £20.00

ISBN 9780745647869

Published 6 August 2010

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